Carl Th. Dreyer’s 1932 film “Vampyr” is obsessed with the divide between real and unreal within its world. The film’s strength lies in its ability to explore this divide and use it to create its mood. The subtitle of the German version of the film translates to “The Dream of Allan Grey”, and many of the most striking sequences of the film consist of Grey’s dream sequences and visions. These visions propel the film forward and unveil otherwise hidden details.
The film follows the protagonist (named alternately as Allan Grey, Allan Gray, or David Gray, depending on the version seen) as he literally follows shadows to a manor where a girl lies in bed, the victim of the title vampire who only rarely makes an appearance in the film. She is transitioning from human to vampire. As if dreaming, Grey watches the actions other characters take, and is primarily called into the plot to be acted upon. In one scene, for example, he draws his own blood for the vampire’s victim, but only upon the demands of her doctor. Later, he has an out of body vision where he finds and witnesses his own burial at the hands of the vampire’s servants. His vision moves freely from his own ghostly apparition to inside his figure in the coffin. A glass window in the box allows his death figure to see up into the sky as the vampire’s supporters take him outside and up towards the church and his burial.
The surreal nature of the film is aided by the unusual use of lighting. The characters constantly refer to their setting as night, although when they step outside of the dark corners of their houses, it is clearly day: bright light shines through the windows, sunlit shadows bathe the grass, and the leaves of the trees stand dark against a pale background.
Yet despite the imagery and the dreamy unfolding of the plot, the film appears to occur in reality. The film is shot on location, and very little stylization occurs on screen. Grey’s shifts between the “real world” and the “unreal world” seem to happen quietly. For example, the patriarch of the manor he stumbles upon dies a concrete death in front of him, but what kills him? All that is seen on screen is the shadow of a gun, but the family does not react as if he was murdered. He dies, the household grieves, and the plot moves on.
While Grey occupies the unique position of a protagonist privy to added levels of detail regarding his world, he is just one of a cast of characters in the film. These other characters are far more active participants in the film, who take action over their own lives. For instance, the priest discovers the true nature of the force that plagues their community through stumbling upon the book describing the nature of the vampire left to Grey by the family’s patriarch. It is the priest who drives the stake through the vampire’s heart, not Grey. The only incident where Grey directly takes action is when he rescues the sister of the victim from the vampire’s house at the end of the film. Regardless, he only does this because he saw her location in his vision of his own death.
What occurs in the story may be concrete, but how it is told unveils like a vision – like a hallucination. Grey seems to be visiting this world with a vision only he is capable of, while the opposing forces of real and unreal vibrate against each other throughout the film. “Vampyr” deals with a far more complex world than its assertion of a singular vampire figure in the title may suggest. This evil is far more insidious, seeping through the community, like a cancer, like a plague – concrete in the world, but very hard to pin down. The acting figures in this film are the devotees, while she moves quietly in the background. What results, more than anything else, is a particular kind of dread which stalks the film, a plague that lurks in the background like the unseen vampire.